Have you tried to watch a music video online in the last month? Catch up on the news; a university lecture; access a video blog? If so, it’s very likely that you’ll have attempted to access YouTube, the video-sharing platform used by millions of people worldwide. And if you’re in Pakistan, you must have been disappointed.
The entire website has been blocked in Pakistan since September 17, after riots swept the major cities, leaving scores of people dead. The violence was triggered by a trailer for a film called “The Innocence of Muslims”, hosted by YouTube. The government demanded that access to the video be blocked. Internet giant Google, which owns YouTube, said that it could not restrict access because it doesn’t have a localised operation in Pakistan. In response, the Pakistan Telecommunications Agency (PTA) blocked the whole platform. The deadlock has now lasted for over a month.
With more than seven million YouTube users in Pakistan, the ban has already had a far-reaching impact. The Virtual University is a government-run institution which, since 2002, has provided distance learning across Pakistan, entirely through the internet and satellite TV. Until recent events, it was heavily dependent on YouTube. “The Virtual University used YouTube for uploading video content, so that students – who are very used to YouTube – could use it for their studies,” explains Mohammed, an IT manager at the VU. Since the ban, the VU has entirely moved off YouTube and onto its own uploading and streaming service. They were lucky that they already had such a system in place, allowing an easy switch over. Smaller organisations, which do not have the resources to host their own videos, or to develop the means to do so, are in a much more difficult position.
The PTA has been engaged in a steadily intensifying attempt to censor the internet ever since the Pakistan Telecommunication Act of 1996, which prohibited the transmission of messages that are “false, fabricated, indecent or obscene”. The vagueness of the terminology leaves ample room for abuse, with no clear criteria for what should be banned, and no accountability in the decision-making process. Ad hoc bans such as the recent YouTube block are widely used: YouTube has been barred on at least two previous occasions, while Facebook and Twitter have also been temporarily blocked in recent years. Yet according to a High Court decision obtained by Bolo Bhi, a non-profit group working for internet freedom and government transparency, these bans are unconstitutional and should not be permitted.
Unconstitutional, perhaps – but temporary bans are just the tip of the iceberg. In February this year, the National ICT R&D Fund put out a request for proposals for a massive URL filtering system to block “undesirable, blasphemous, objectionable, obscene content”. One of the most effective methods of blocking content, such software can review 50 million website links in less than a second and would allow the government to restrict access very easily. Under immense pressure from national and international human rights organisations campaigning for access to information, the proposal was dropped. But the “Innocence of Muslims” riots appear to have changed all that. Asked by the Lahore High Court why it was unable to block the video, the PTA said that it needed specialised systems. A subsequent court order gave them the authority to implement whatever they need. Statements have indicated that a URL filtering system – which some have compared to the infamous Great Firewall of China – will be in place by the end of the year.
The fact that the controversial proposal has been reintroduced following public unrest has not been lost on campaigners. “They are taking advantage of the religious issues – blasphemy and pornography,” says Sana Saleem, executive director of Bolo Bhi. She explains that this notion of religious sensitivity is not just a convenient way to usher in censorship, but also a means of shutting down debate. “There are very few of us who talk about internet rights, because it’s such a limited domain in Pakistan. But when you talk about that, you are instantly labeled as a blasphemer, or as someone who supports pornography.”
While the PTA claims that it needs this system to filter out blasphemous or indecent material, if past example is anything to go by, its application will be far wider. A 2012 report by Freedom House into global internet freedom found that the most systematically censored websites in Pakistan have been those run by Balochi and Sindhi political dissidents. The Washington-based World Sindhi Institute has been blocked since 2007, while Baloch Hal, the first English language Balochi news service, has been blocked since November 2010. Indeed, Balochistan has suffered disproportionately from ad hoc bans. Not only do activists depend on YouTube to disseminate information about extrajudicial killings, but parts of the state have been subject to several one day bans on mobile phone service. Once the URL filtering system is introduced – even if its stated aim is to restrict content that offends religious sensibilities – it will undoubtedly be used for much wider political censorship. “We will only get the information that the government or state agencies want us to have,” says Saleem.
“Unfortunately, the decision to determine what is ‘inappropriate’ arbitrarily remains with individual minds manning these powerful organisations,” says Shahzad Ahmad of Bytes4All, an Islamabad-based digital rights group. “Such decisions carry the potential to not only derail civil liberties and basic human rights such as democracy, freedom of expression and access to information, but also pave the way to individual political interests being served.”
There is also huge scope for error. A ban on searching for the word “breasts” in the United Arab Emirates ended up restricting access to medical papers on breast cancer, not just pornography. Closer to home, a recipient of a P@asha innovation fund grant in Pakistan registered the website hometownshoes.com, only to have it banned because all sites containing the term “shoes” were prohibited. After an approach to the PTA, it was reinstated, but it demonstrates the possibility for error and economic losses.
Just 20 million people out of Pakistan’s 187 million strong population have access to the internet, making digital rights a niche concern. However, despite this limited audience, being online has brought innumerable benefits to Pakistan, enabling entrepreneurship and economic growth, facilitating education and academic research, and encouraging communication. Increased censorship and the associated impact it will have on the basic human rights of freedom of expression and access to information should be a concern for everyone. As Saleem says, “It’s just another step to becoming a police state and a more closed society than we already are.”